Arizona Supreme Court denies relief from physical signature-gathering requirements

Initiative proponents decry decision citing E-Qual provisions

Posted 5/19/20

An online signature-gathering program for those seeking office in Arizona is OK, but for statewide initiatives, the same system cannot be used to gather qualified elector signatures to meet …

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Arizona Supreme Court denies relief from physical signature-gathering requirements

Initiative proponents decry decision citing E-Qual provisions

Political advocates contend the Arizona Supreme Court ruling is as a direct blow to democracy in Arizona.
Political advocates contend the Arizona Supreme Court ruling is as a direct blow to democracy in Arizona.
File Photo

An online signature-gathering program for those seeking office in Arizona is OK, but for statewide initiatives, the same system cannot be used to gather qualified elector signatures to meet ballot-placement requirements, the Arizona Supreme Court has ruled.

On May 13, the Arizona Supreme Court denied a request for accepting a special action and relief from the in-person state law signature requirement to place statewide initiative questions on the November general election ballot.

Arizona hosts a partisan primary election Tuesday, Aug. 4 and a general election Tuesday, Nov. 2.

At the core of the legal challenge to physical signature-gathering during the time of the novel coronavirus is the usage of the E-Qual program. Through the E-Qual program, which is administered by the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office through the Citizens Clean Elections Commissions --- a bipartisan, voter-approved regulatory body --- Arizona voters can sign nomination forms for partisan candidates and provide $5 donations.

Roopali Desai, a Phoenix-based attorney who specializes in election law at Coppersmith Brockelman Lawyers, is spearheading, through legal representation, four statewide initiative efforts. They are:

• Arizonans for Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act;

• Smart and Safe Arizona;

• Invest in Education; and

• Save Our Schools Arizona.

Ms. Roopali filed for relief from the physical signature-gathering rules due to the unsafe environment created by the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. The Arizona Supreme Court denied her pursuit of relief short of issuing a formal legal opinion on the matter, which is uncommon but not unprecedented.

“I represent four initiative campaigns and those four campaigns sought relief in getting E-Qual signatures in place for certain statewide initiatives. We asked for it due to the unprecedented situation created by the pandemic, which does not make it safe to gather signatures in-person.”

Ms. Desai contends the issue speaks to the core of democracy in the Grand Canyon State.

“We filed an original special action with the Arizona Supreme Court. Our claims rested on the Arizona constitutional provision that provides citizens the right to legislate themselves,” she said. “Given the pandemic, we sought an expedited review from the Supreme Court.”

Ms. Desai points out her legal remedy for clients pursuing political change through public vote was not a typical one --- but these are uncommon times, she points out.

“We were not successful in doing so. It is difficult to sort through their decision without a published opinion --- I don’t really know what the basis for the denial for relief was,” she said. “There was at least one judge who voted to pursue the relief argument.”

Ms. Desai explains her clients felt an immediate need to get the special action seeking relief in front of the Supreme Court as the global pandemic began to unfold.

“We know that right now it is bad, and we have an executive order from a Republican governor that had just issued a stay-at-home order, so we were sure to be proactive and seek this relief,” she said of the Arizonan political climate. “We have a highly political court and a highly political Attorney General. Those are people not looking to change, they are looking to keep things the same, which is not making it easy for initiative campaigns to make the ballot.”

--- Roopali Desai

Despite setbacks to online signature-gathering, Ms. Desai remains steadfast her clients’ initiatives are full steam ahead.

“Three of my clients are moving forward, as they have received an incredible amount of support,” she said. “My fourth client --- Save our Schools Arizona --- has just announced they will not be able to move forward. They collect signatures with volunteers and they just don’t believe it is responsible to ask volunteers to seek out signatures due to public health concerns.”

But when there is a will, there is a way, Ms. Desai contends.

“I think the most important takeaway from this is that Arizona residents are resilient,” she said. “I think you will see that under these extreme circumstances they are going to fight what they think is right. They are going to work really hard and they are going to qualify those measures they know are in the best interest of the state.”

Steadfast in their pursuit

Providing more funding for public education in Arizona --- a budget line item ranking among the lowest in the nation --- is a pursuit proponents are steadfast is paramount.

The Invest in Education Act, which is sponsored by the Arizona Education Association and the Stand for Children nonprofit organization, seeks to create $940 million in new funding for the public education apparatus here in Arizona.

According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, a total of 237,654 qualified voter signatures are due by July 2 for the Invest in Education Act to appear on the November general election ballot.

The Invest in Education Act would provide additional funding for public education by establishing a 3.5% surcharge on taxable income above $250,000 annually for single persons or married persons filing separately, and on taxable income above $500,000 annually for married persons filing jointly or head of household filers, which would dedicate additional revenue to:

  1. Hire and increase salaries for teachers, classroom support personnel and student support services personnel;
  2. Mentoring and retention programs for new classroom teachers;
  3. Career training and post-secondary preparation programs; and
  4. Arizona Teachers Academy; amends the Arizona Teachers Academy statute, and requires annual accounting of additional revenue.

Joe Thomas, Arizona Education Association president, says his organization is keen on keeping quality education accessible to all who call Arizona home.

“The mission of the Arizona Education Association is keeping the promise of keeping quality public education accessible,” he said pointing out the inception of the AEA was more than 100 years ago when Arizona parents and teachers joined forces to provide quality textbooks to all children attending public schools.

“We are still fighting for equitable technology and quality textbooks and today we are 20,000 members strong across the state. We see the opportunity of Invest in Education as the best opportunity to fund our public education with public dollars.”

For Mr. Thomas, the Supreme Court ruling is making it difficult for Arizona residents to govern themselves through a constitutional right: the initiative.

“We have been very creative on finding ways to getting this on the ballot,” he said pointing out the irony of the court’s decision.

“If this system is good enough for the people who write laws why is it not good enough for the residents who live with them? Why are they silencing voters, and creating unreasonable provisions for citizens to meet, to create a ballot question to go before the voters?”

But rest assured, Mr. Thomas, says, the Invest in Education ballot question will make the November ballot.

“We will be on the ballot in November,” he said. “We know that voters are going to say, ‘yes’ to investing in education. They want to invest in their children and their community just the same as we do.”

Rebecca Gau, Stand for Children Arizona executive director, echoes similar sentiments.

“I think it is critical on so many levels,” she said of increasing the amount of funding that is funneled through the Arizona Legislature to the public school system. It was mission-critical before the pandemic happened. If we were taking public education for granted, we certainly are not now as we all with kids are getting an up-close look at it. And, we know what happens during the time of recession.”

--- Rebecca Gau

The Stand for Children group is classified as a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization whereas dollars provided to the group can go toward any political campaign as long as half of the organization’s proceeds are dedicated to a social service endeavor.

According to federal law, 501(c)4 nonprofit donors can be anonymous as long as 51 percent of the funds spent go toward a social-service effort. The other 49 percent can be used in any political manner, which is oftentimes funneled into local political races.

The Stand for Children website does list its donors.

Ms. Gau says the organization is preparing for dire financial straits.

“This initiative is even more important because we saw what happened during the last recession,” she said noting steep cuts in public education here in Arizona. “We need to protect our education funding from politicians.”